Into the Spotlight, sponsored by Huddersfield-based Scriba PR, is a weekly business feature which highlights independent businesses. Here, courtesy of the University of Huddersfield, we introduce Mood, a new cafe in Huddersfield town centre whose owner has quite a story to tell.

A newly-opened café in Huddersfield is how Sleman Shwaish is thanking the town for his welcome in the UK since he fled his native Syria nearly 10 years ago.

Sleman’s new café, called Mood in Westgate in the town centre, reflects the interest in healthy eating that led him to study for his Master’s in Food and Nutrition at the University of Huddersfield.

Now 33, Sleman left Syria in 2012 after being faced with conscription into the army. He was granted asylum in the UK, and found his way to Huddersfield, which he says has been “amazing” for him.

His time in this country has also seen Sleman help fellow refugees by working for the Red Cross, thanks to his skills with languages, receive a personal invitation to meet HRH Prince Charles and now the fulfilment of a cherished dream to open a café that showcases the best in Mediterranean food and drink.

“I was studying Agricultural Engineering in the Department of Food Science at the University of Aleppo,” says Sleman. “I wanted to continue studying food science, as that was my parents’ dream and I was so excited about it. I wanted to do a Master’s, then a PhD and become an academic teacher.

“But the war started, and there was a new rule that any student who graduates must join the army. I refused because I did not want to join this killing machine, and I did not want to kill my people. My only option was to find a safer place, and my parents asked me to flee because there was no safe place in Syria anymore.”

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Sleman’s journey to the UK involved a dangerous six-hour walk to the border between Syria and Lebanon, being smuggled across Turkey and then flying to Britain, where he successfully claimed asylum.

“It was not an easy journey, it was an illegal one and it was dangerous,” he continues. “I was too young to know about matters like doing what the smugglers were telling me to do. But I claimed asylum here and then got refugee status, so at least I am safe here in the UK.

“The way people welcomed me here was amazing, especially in Yorkshire and Huddersfield. I didn’t want to go anywhere busy like London or Manchester, because I am from a small town in Syria. I was looking for people from my community, so a lot of people advised me to come to Huddersfield because it was safe, friendly and nice.”

Slemen’s dream of a career in food and nutrition was not to be denied, and he graduated with his Master’s in 2016, a mere four years after leaving Syria.

“I learned so much, especially from the teaching staff who were so friendly and helpful. They were so supportive, because I had a lot of issues to deal with during my course. My parents were, and are, still in Syria, I had problems contacting them and had no chance to see how they are.

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“The university gave me the time to finish my work beyond what was set if I needed it due to my circumstances, but the level of training on issues like food hygiene and quality control, as part of my course, were fantastic.”

Following his Master’s, Sleman used his experiences to help other refugees by working with the British Red Cross. Speaking four languages – Arabic, Kurdish, English and Assyrian – and even learning Mediterranean sign language meant Sleman could help many people who were in a situation he knew all about. It even led him to visit Buckingham Palace to meet Prince Charles, who then asked to meet Sleman again on a visit to the Red Cross’ offices.

“I was surprised by how much he knew about Syria, he told me that Arabic was his favourite language but he felt he was too old to learn!

“He also knew a lot about Aleppo and its castle, and about the history of Damascus, as well as the Kurdish area and its languages. I was so surprised about his knowledge of Syria and its people.”

Now, Sleman has opened Mood in the centre of Huddersfield. All the food, including delicious coconut harissa cakes and baklava, is homemade and much of the coffee is from Huddersfield-based Bean Brothers. Also highly recommended is Kurdish coffee, with a smooth, nutty flavour and made from ground pistachio nuts.

“It took time to get the investment and set it up,” Sleman adds. “And then the first lockdown happened. But we got through and opened up, and we even use stone from Syria that we have had shipped over inside the café.

“The most important thing is the quality of the food. I don’t have a commercial supplier, so it is all homemade, by my sister and other Kurdish families here.

“It’s good food, it is healthy food – I believe Mediterranean food from Greece, Turkey, the Levant countries and Syria is the healthiest food in the world.”

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Alan Tobi, the university’s international student experience manager, has known Sleman since he began his Master’s and is delighted with how he has settled in the area.

“It has been a fascinating journey from the moment Sleman arrived on campus and became president of the university’s Syrian Student Society. From day one he showed desire, character and motivation for his studies and willingness to represent Syrian culture on campus.

“By participating in the Global Food and Culture Festival, Sleman had the opportunity with other Syrian students to show off their national cuisine and dance culture during our live events.

“I am very pleased to see him grow as an adult and develop key business skills that have seen him bring a positive vibe to both the campus and town.”

Interview by: The University of Huddersfield